Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer looked at his protruding belly in the mirror one day this spring and didn’t like what he saw.
So with his daughter’s summer wedding in mind, he went on a diet, eschewing sugars and starches in favor of fruits and vegetables. By the time training camp arrived in August, Beamer had shed nearly 32 pounds, slimming down to the weight he played at as a defensive back for the Hokies from 1966 to 1968.
Little did he know then, Virginia Tech was about to endure its worst season on the football field in 20 years. In front of his players and with reporters, Beamer projected an image of calm. But all the losing led to some sleepless nights and an even smaller stomach.
“My diet was really working, because I was losing weight when I didn’t want to lose any more weight. I wasn’t eating,” said Beamer, who dropped down to 166 pounds at one point. “That side of it wasn’t easy.”
It’s rare Beamer reveals the gory details of the insatiable competitiveness that has delivered him more wins than any other active coach in college football. But amid rumors that he is considering the sort of sweeping offseason coaching staff changes that are foreign to Blacksburg, it has provided his players with a diversion as they prepare for their first non-BCS bowl game in three seasons.
Virginia Tech can end a disappointing year with a winning record if it beats Rutgers in Friday’s Russell Athletic Bowl, and that’s all Beamer has focused on over the past month.
“This bowl game means a great deal. It means a lot,” said offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring, a frequent target of the coaching speculation. “I think when you look at last year and the year before, the emphasis and the focus was on how good those particular teams were and what they did accomplish. This year, I think the onus has been a little bit on what we haven’t accomplished.”
These Hokies have set several ignominious distinctions en route to compiling a 6-6 record during the regular season, their worst since finishing 2-8-1 in 1992. They ended Virginia Tech’s national-best eight-year run of winning 10 or more games and finished with fewer ACC wins than the Hokies have had since joining the conference in 2004.
Virginia Tech’s “Beamerball” mystique also took a hit when the NCAA’s longest active streak of 237 consecutive games without allowing a kickoff return touchdown came to an end on Oct. 6 at North Carolina. On that same day, the Hokies allowed more points (48) than they ever had before to an ACC foe.
Meanwhile, an offense predicated on a power running attack was mostly dormant. Virginia Tech’s top tailback, freshman J.C. Coleman, finished with the fewest yards (486) of any Hokies No. 1 running back since 1971, and 183 of them came in one game.
The players see Friday’s matchup with Rutgers, whose defense allowed the fifth-fewest points in the country this year, as a way to right some of those wrongs heading into the offseason.
“What we had this year was unacceptable in my eyes,” senior linebacker Bruce Taylor said. “We know what we’ve got to do better, so this bowl game, I feel like this can be the first step for [next year’s] team. It’s a mind-set of like, ‘All right, we’re here, let’s go win it and build on this thing.’ ”
Through it all, Beamer has tried to remain even-keeled, though the losing weighed on him behind closed doors. In recent weeks, he has sidestepped questions about any looming staff changes, choosing to keep the spotlight on Rutgers.
On Thursday, he emphasized once again that these Hokies never quit on the season, winning their final two games to become bowl eligible for a 20th-straight year. Another victory would be the sort of dessert Beamer hasn’t enjoyed in months.
“We had some disappointments, some setbacks, some adversity, but the football team always stayed together. They never pointed fingers,” Beamer said. “So if we could win this game, I think it would make a statement about being tough-minded, overcoming adversity and fighting through things.”